After several years of hauling around back-achingly large bags, women are getting some relief. Small bags are back in style.

“The fashion consumer doesn’t want to look like she’s lugging around her entire office anymore,” said Robert Burke, who runs an eponymous New York luxury consulting firm. “There is a desire to look more carefree.”

The trend parallels a general shift toward more ladylike fashion, and may help generate additional sales in the U.S. handbag market, which grew 10 percent to about $10.3 billion in the year ending in June, according to Coach Inc. (COH) Luxury sales will rise 7.5 percent this holiday season, faster than the 6.7 percent increase a year earlier, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Saks Inc. (SKS) Chief Executive Officer Steve Sadove is sufficiently bullish on bags to put more on shelves this fall, and is sticking to his forecast of a same-store sales increase of as much as 9 percent in the second half of 2011. Coach sees small and crossbody bags as a “significant opportunity.”

Fashion houses including Prada, Dior and Gucci ran ads touting smaller bags in Vogue’s September issue. Louis Vuitton’s Fifth Avenue flagship this month displayed a top-handled $1,560 “Lockit BB” -- for “Bebe” -- which at 9.4 inches (24 centimeters) is more than a third smaller than the iconic Lockit.

At New York Fashion Week this month, Ken Downing, fashion director of Dallas-based luxury retailer Neiman Marcus Group Inc., spotted plenty of medium-sized, rectangular, hand-held purses, many accented with the neon colors that dominated the spring 2012 collections.

‘Polished Looks’

That shape goes well with the current “polished looks” that are a nod to the “Mad Men” TV series and the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

Lisa Pak, who co-owns a Tribeca boutique, carried a boxy, 8-inch, yellow patent leather Louis Vuitton shoulder bag to the Vera Wang show -- leaving her oversized bags at home.

“I wanted to wear something special,” said Pak, 45. “This is all I need.”

The return of smaller bags may put limits on an oversize trend that began about 10 years ago and by the mid-aughts had “hit the major leagues,” says Roseanne Morrison, fashion director of Doneger Group, a New York fashion trend forecaster. Women liked big bags in part because they could stuff in everything from their laptops to extra shoes.

They also found pleasing the contrast of a big bag with skinny jeans, Morrison says. “It” bags included the 15-inch “Giant” Balenciaga City, priced at $1,945, and the Fendi Spy, a $2,250 17-inch bag.

Like a Boulder

Over time, however, the bags began to, ahem, weigh on their owners. On fashion blogs women complained that the bags had become so large and heavy that it was like carrying around a boulder. The gripes have prompted handbag wholesaler Rioni to defend big bags; a post this month was illustrated with a perspiring, quivering cartoon figure trying to lift a barbell.

Designer Rebecca Minkoff, who once sold a leather tote that weighed 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) empty, says just half of her bags are large, compared with about two-thirds before. She defines a large bag as one whose width or height is 2 feet (0.6 meters) or more.

Smaller bags are easier to carry and look better with “statement” high heels than do oversized bags, which make wearers lean over and “waddle,” she says. Minkoff’s bags are also more affordable -- $195 to $295 compared with $495 -- and are selling briskly, she says.

Good for Business

Small doesn’t always equal cheap. Louis Vuitton’s 13.8-inch “petit modele” version of the Lockit, in anthracite crocodile with a chained handcuff, sells for $14,760.

The advent of smaller bags “will be good for business because it shows a new handbag shape and proportion that the consumer doesn’t have in her closet today,” said consultant Burke. “It gives the consumer something new to buy.”

Big bags won’t disappear, of course. Women still need totes to haul around their iPads and other gear, which means retailers will gain two sales instead of one, Burke says.

Nordstrom Inc. (JWN), the Seattle-based retailer, has a solution: a matching envelope clutch and a tote in red and black leather with leopard-print calf hair, at $128 and $248, respectively.